Once a symbol of U.S. pride, the Big U appears doomed S.S. United States awaits final voyage

February 09, 1992|By John H. Gormley Jr. | John H. Gormley Jr.,Staff Correspondent

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- When the S.S. United States smashed the record for crossing the Atlantic on its maiden voyage in July 1952, the ship became an object of great national pride, further evidence to a confident people that this was the American century.

There is little about the ship to be proud of these days. Tied up alongside an unused coal pier, just a short distance from the shipyard where it was built, the vessel lies forlornly. Its distinctive red-white-and-blue stacks are faded and streaked; its decks are fouled by pigeons and sea gulls; its cabins, restaurants and lounges are stripped of everything of value. The black paint of the hull has peeled away in long, rusty lines that stream down from the white block letters of its name on the bow.

Idled for more than 21 years -- two years longer than it operated across the Atlantic -- the ship stands as an affront to those who remember it in its heyday. Commodore Leroy J. Alexanderson, the man who commanded it for 14 years, lives in nearby Hampton, but he finds it too painful to visit.

"The ship's a mess," he lamented. "I don't go aboard her. . . . There's no reason for me to go aboard. I don't want to see her the way she is now."

He would like to see the ship taken to sea and scuttled to spare it any further humiliation. "I'd rather have them take her out to sea with all the flags flying and let her go," he said, but he acknowledged that pollution rules mean the ship won't meet such a dignified end.

Instead, it might be sold at auction and towed to an Asian shipyard for scrapping.

When the ship was purchased a decade ago by Richard H. Hadley, a Seattle real estate developer, hopes soared that it would be converted to a cruise ship and taken to sea again.

But one scheme after another has fallen through until there seems little chance the S.S. United States will ever sail as a cruise ship. The conversion would cost at least $200 million, or as much as it would cost to build a brand new ship custom-designed for the cruise business. To compete, the S.S. United States would have to depend on its undisputed reputation as one of history's greatest ships.

"Two hundred million: That's a lot of money to pay for history," said Commodore Alexanderson, who expects the ship to be scrapped. "Maybe I'm wrong; I hope I am."

When he spoke, time had just about run out on the ship. Seized by federal marshals Oct. 12 for non-payment of rent on its berth, the ship was scheduled to be sold at public auction tomorrow, where the most serious bidders were expected to be scrappers.

But late Thursday the legal owner of the ship, a company controlled by Mr. Hadley, declared bankruptcy in Seattle. Under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code, the company, United States Cruises Inc., will be afforded protection from its creditors while it reorganizes. That move prompted a federal judge in Norfolk on Friday to call off the auction until he decides which court should have jurisdiction over the ship. That hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Suddenly, the Big U -- as the ship is known to its fans -- had a reprieve. That could give ship preservationists time to organize efforts to save it. And the ship does have many fans, all over the world.

Last Monday night, three young men were prowling around the pier next to the ship. Its dark hull was barely visible, silhouetted against the sky on a moonless night.

Hanno Buss, 26, a student in Hamburg, Germany, said he and his two friends decided to come to the United States to see the ship when they heard it was about to be scrapped. Their plane had just landed in Norfolk, and they had come straight from the airport to see the ship.

The next morning the three were back, taking pictures and videotaping it. One of the three, Elmar Hess, 25, an art student, said the ship made a big impression on him in his youth when his hobby was making radio-controlled models of ships.

"It was a status symbol for the United States. Now look at it," he said.

Despite its condition, the ship still has the ability to move people who know its history. "It's the mystique of the ship," said Mr. Buss, a student of naval architecture. "It's very difficult to explain how you feel."

These young Germans were only 3 or 4 years old when the S.S. United States last sailed, but many older Baltimoreans still have fond memories of their voyages to Europe.

For more than a decade after its launching in 1952, the ship carried the rich and the famous. But it also carried ordinary people for whom the ship remained the standard means of transportation across the Atlantic.

John T. Menzies Jr., a retired Baltimore businessman, went with his father to Europe on the ship in the late 1950s. He recalls wearing a tuxedo to formal dinners in the ship's first-class dining room. "Except for the Queen Mary," he said, "this was overall the best boat."

The S.S. United States was not as luxurious as many of the other ships crossing the Atlantic. That's because it was not a pure luxury liner.

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